Feet first [Was: antedating _six-feet under_]

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 20 22:41:57 UTC 2013

In similar vein--an expression that was once fairly ordinary, but has
been disappearing slowly ever since ambulance chasers made it an
issue--the expression "feet first" seems to be hard to track. The only
dictionary reference I found is Dictionary.com/Random House, which dates
the origin 1945-50, which seems way too late. The usual collocation is
"go out feet first" or "be carried out feet first", often as a threat
from a gangster or a criminal, or a threat by someone to remain in place
unless someone takes them out "feet first". OED has no corresponding
entry (there is a general entry for head/feet first, dating to 1877, but
it's not relevant).

Harold Lloyd had a film 'Feet First' in 1930 (his second talkie,
according to Wiki), which may or may not play on the expression (in this
case, the comedian repeatedly survives). I have not seen the film, but
it may be worth checking out to see if the expression is used. At the
opposite end is the film The Racket (1951) that I watched on AMC
recently. This one uses the phrase quite unambiguously. So the tail end
of the RHD dating is confirmed, but I suspect pre-war origin (perhaps
from gangster movies/stories, although it might date even earlier if
associated with the Western).

IMDB record for The Racket:

A newspaper promo for Lloyd's film here:

The expression is common in other languages, and is clearly 20th
century. It is usually attributed to hospital procedure that required
live patients to be transported head first, while the corpses are
wheeled into the morgue feet first. I'm quite certain that this is still
contemporary practice in Russian hospitals and the equivalent Russian
expression is very much in use. In the US, at some point (late 1970s?),
all patients started being wheeled around feet first in order to allow
them to see where they were going (provided they are conscious). I am
quite certain this was standard practice in the mid-1980s (family
experience in the profession--we talked about this over dinner sometime
in 1983). This did not change the practice of corpses been wheeled
around or carried out feet first. Another explanation is connected to
the way bodies are laid in coffins and then carried out before coffin is
closed, in which case, it might be antedated even earlier, as the
customary direction of carrying coffins is much older. Either way, the
expression appears to have been on the decline. More recent threats
sound more like, "I'm not leaving! They'd have to carry me out!", which
doesn't quite have the sting of "They'd have to carry me out feet first!".

Here are a couple of pre-1945 expression from Google News Archives.

New York Times - Apr 28, 1944
> "I've been fired before, but this is the first time they ever carried
> me out feet first," Sewell Avery, chairman of the board of Montgomery
> Ward Co.,

New York Times - Oct 9, 1943
> In the staccato but persuasive language of Chicago's gangland
> "syndicate," anybody who resigns from that organization "resigns feet
> first."

These two are behind a paywall, so I have not verified them. But the use
of the expression is unambiguous.

The second, earlier one is more tenuous.

Lawrence Journal-World - Dec 7, 1939. p. 12/5
Goes Out Feel First
> W. L. Miller was ejected bodily, feet first, from the chairman's
> office of the Georgia highway department today for the second time
> since Gov. E. D. Rivers ordered him dismissed as road chairman.

Here, Mr. Miller, a life-long friend of the governor, got into an
argument with Rivers over diversion of funds to other projects and
Rivers fired Miller. The story describes Miller returning into his
office an starting a fight, before being ejected, along with his
brother. No one died, but the title seems to be suggestive, as if Miller
might have boasted that he'd have to be carried out feet first rather
than leave the office. It seems quite unlikely that the expression would
have been used twice like that in the AP story if it were not

Having thus been limited by various Google searches, I turned to AHN
(through the Boston Public Library, so I can't offer links). This one
struck gold all the way back to 1843.

 From the Daily Atlas, Boston, June 28, 1843
Headline: Court Record; Article Type: News/Opinion
Paper: Daily Atlas, published as The Daily Atlas; Date: 06-28-1843;
Volume: XI; Issue: 308; Page: [2]; Location: Boston, Massachusetts
> COURT RECORD. [Reported for The Atlas.]
> Supreme Judicial Court--Tuesday, June 27.
> ...
> The Grand Jury came in this morning, and were briefly charged by His
> Honor Chief Justice Shaw, in relation to homicide.
> They then retired to their room, and returned thence soon after with
> an indictment charging Albuer Rogers, Jr. a convict in the State
> Prison, with the murder of Charles Lincoln, Jr. Esq., the late Warden
> of that institution, on the 15th of the current month.
> ...
> He pleaded Not Guilty ; and added, "I do not know but I done the act,
> but not in my right mind."
> He was then asked by the Court whether he had the means of obtaining
> counsel to aid him in his defense. He replied that he supposed his
> father would retain counsel for him. The Court then enquired if he
> would wish to have counsel appointed by the Court in case his father
> should not help him. To this he replied that he certainly wished to
> stand a defence; he had no idea of killing Mr. Lincoln or any man; his
> term was nearly out, and he had begun to count the days which were to
> pass before he should be "rejoicing with his friends in society." And
> he then went on very rapidly to relate a kind of hypochondriacal dream
> which he said had tormented him for several days before the commission
> of the fatal deed. Its substance was, that he had heard voices which
> were familiar to him, saying continually that Mr. Lincoln and other
> officers of the Prison had sworn that Rogers never should go out, till
> he went feet first ; and that they were playing a kind of /popo/ game
> for him, which had been played for many others, none of whom had
> survived it more than a month or two, and he could constantly hear
> them cry out "tread up, tread up," and the blood would keep rushing
> into his lungs and keeping time with it.

The story is recounted again, with slightly different details, but with
the same "going out feet first" phrasing in the July 25 issue of the
same paper, also 1843.

There are several other unrelated instances, until there is another
clear hit in 1883.

Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 18, 1883
Headline: Fleeing Mormons; Article Type: News/Opinion
Paper: Grand Forks Daily Herald; Date: 10-18-1883; Volume: 4; Issue:
141; Page: [2]; Location: Grand Forks, North Dakota
Fleeing Mormons.
> We walked until mornin', and put up at a farm-house. I bought them
> horses and that wagon of the farmer and kivered the wagon myself with
> muslin. Since then we've been travelin' toward Maine as fast as them
> critters will carry us, and when we git there we'll never leave again
> until they carry us out feet first.
> ...
> Cleveland Cor. N. Y. Sun.

I presume the byline means "Cleveland Correspondent for the New York Sun".

There may be more instances of "feet first" earlier in its ordinary
sense as well, but I only searched for "out feet first".

In any case, the record seems to confirm the use of "feet first" as a
reference to the burial/funerial custom, not to the hospital convention,
as it antedates modern hospitals where this would have been an issue.


On 11/20/2013 12:36 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
> David Barnhart wrote:
>> In researching _six-feeted_, I came across Berrey & van den Bark (1942)
>> evidence of _six-feet under_ (meaning "dead").  A little digging found the
>> following from 1939 in a newspaper cartoon ("Inspector Wade," Chester
>> [Penn.] Times, Nov. 8, 1939, p 15):
>> "I'm puttin' you two coppers with the daisies!  Six feet under is your next
>> stop!"
> Great work, David. Here is a lead for an instance of "six feet under
> ground" used as slang in 1931. Only snippets are visible in Google
> Books, but the snippet with the expression shows part of the table of
> contents. The stories listed in the table of contents identify the
> precise issue. Hence, with high probablity the excerpt below appeared
> in the January 3, 1931 issue of Collier's magazine (requires
> verfication).
> Periodical: Collier's
> Volume: 87
> Page: 6
> Year: 1931
> (Google Books snippet view; data may be inaccurate; must be verified on paper)
> http://books.google.com/books?id=xyAfAQAAMAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=wickedest
> [Begin excerpt]
> He went so far that he displeased some of the older residents, and
> they sent to Sicily for old Don Pep' to put Ignazio in his place -
> which was six feet under ground - according to the old-fashioned
> rules. Damon Runyon describes the meeting . . .
> [End excerpt]
> Table of contents snippet shows "Fed-Up" by Don Marquis and "Sea
> Eagle" George Creel. The FictionMags Index identifies the issue as:
> http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/t947.htm
> Collier’s [v 87 # 1, January 3, 1931]
> Garson

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